Stories > Remembering Singapore's Founding Father, Chief Diplomat And Friend To The World

2015 • Issue 2

Remembering Singapore's Founding Father, Chief Diplomat And Friend To The World

The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, not only brought Singapore to the world, he also brought the world to Singapore through the friendships and diplomatic ties he developed over five decades on the international stage.




idely regarded as one of the world’s greatest statesmen, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew was not only the nation’s founding father but also, as Singapore’s Ambassador- At-Large Tommy Koh puts it, “the most famous Singaporean in the world”.

Mr Lee passed away on March 23 at the age of 91, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that his legacy has extended beyond Singapore.

Indeed, it would be impossible to talk about Singapore’s approach to diplomacy without mentioning his contributions. As the Republic’s first prime minister, he set the tone for its foreign policy, reaching out to many world leaders to build enduring ties that cut across political, social and economic lines.

As further testament to Mr Lee’s influence and the strength of the international friendships he made, leaders from 23 countries attended his State Funeral on March 29. On that day, India, New Zealand and Bhutan also marked his passing by flying their national flags at half-mast.


Astute in his reading of geopolitics, he understood very early on the need to make friends in the global arena, especially for a small country like Singapore. Mr Lee once said: “Singapore has to take the world as it is; it is too small to change it. But we can try to maximise the space we have to manoeuvre among the big ‘trees’ in the region.”

As Prime Minister of independent Singapore from 1965 to 1990, Mr Lee devoted time and effort to building strong links with other leaders. He was an influential interlocutor between Singapore and the rest of the world, earning the admiration of world leaders in government, business and academia with his frank analysis and prescient reading of world affairs.

Even after retiring as Prime Minister, Mr Lee travelled extensively on Singapore’s behalf as Senior Minister (1990 to 2004) and as Minister Mentor (2004 to 2011). In a tribute to Mr Lee in The Jakarta Post, Jusuf Wanandi, cofounder of Jakarta’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies, wrote: “Lee, with his sharp thinking, especially on the future of East Asia and Asia-Pacific, had become the spokesperson for the region, in particular to the West...”

His role as the Republic’s chief diplomat raised the island state’s international standing and gave Singapore a stature that belied its small size. But perhaps his defining moment on the international

stage was in recognising the rise of China as a major world player as early as the 1960s, and making the decision for Singapore to engage China from the 1970s. In doing so, he helped the world better understand China, interpreting the country for the rest of the world; in particular the United States and countries in Asia and Southeast Asia, which were concerned about its rise. In short, Mr Lee was the go-to person on China.

Mr Lee was often credited for playing a pivotal role in China’s opening up. Singapore’s success gave China the impetus to open up and Chinese officials were sent to study Singapore’s model of development and governance. In a message posted on the website of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said: “His contributions to the China- Singapore relationship and China’s reform and opening up will surely be marked by history.”

At crucial turning points in history, from the Cold War to the establishment of US-China relations, his views and counsel also influenced thinking and decisions in many world capitals. Every US president since Richard Nixon sought his counsel on world affairs.

It was in no small part due to Mr Lee’s powers of persuasion that the US remained engaged in Asia despite its initial intent to withdraw following the Vietnam War.


Mr Lee’s global network was impressive. He knew every American president from Lyndon B Johnson to Barack Obama, every Chinese leader from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, and every prime minister of independent India from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi. He also developed close friendships with regional leaders, including former Indonesian president Suharto and the late Seri Begawan, the father of Brunei’s current ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah.

Mr Lee with former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in Beijing.

Mr Lee and Suharto’s close friendship helped surmount significant bilateral issues between Singapore and Indonesia during the mid-1960s. Said Agus Widjojo, former Indonesian Armed Forces chief of territorial affairs: “He understood the culture of Indonesia’s political system and this is very important because the political situation often depends on the personalities of the leaders.” Because of their friendship, an excellent relationship existed between the two countries for close to 30 years from the 1970s. Even after Suharto resigned from office in 1998, Mr Lee remained a good friend to the end.

Dr Henry Kissinger gives Mr Lee a hug just before Mr Lee receives a lifetime achievement award in 2009 from the US-Asean Business Council for fostering US-Asean ties.

As an indication of the close ties between the two neighbours, former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, said at the inaugural Singapore Forum in April: “As Singapore grieved, we in Indonesia too felt that we lost a good friend – a great friend – who among our international friends probably knew Indonesia better than anyone else... He was not only Singapore’s founding father; he was a great statesman of Asia.”

In affirming Mr Lee’s contributions, former US president Bill Clinton said during his State Funeral: “Because Singapore had been friendly to the United States and was friendly to the forces of reform in China, we were all able to have an informal relationship, and just talk things through.” It was therefore no surprise when in 2011, Mr Lee became the first Asian to receive the Lincoln Medal, which honours those whose accomplishments exemplify the legacy of America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln.

Closer to home, Mr Lee was instrumental in the formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 1967. Singapore, together with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, were the five founding members. By backing regional integration, Mr Lee helped create a conducive climate where member states could engage and work towards regional goals without interfering in each other’s affairs.

This brought peace, prosperity, and geopolitical stability to South-east Asia. The Secretary-General of Asean, Le Luong Minh, wrote in Mr Lee’s condolence book that “he had left a lasting legacy, for which he will forever be remembered by the people of the Asean Community”.

Some of Mr Lee’s diplomatic relations blossomed into deep friendships, such as his famous and enduring friendships with former West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt and two former US secretaries of state – Dr Henry Kissinger and Dr George Shultz. Dr Kissinger probably summed up best what Mr Lee’s passing meant in a eulogy in The Washington Post.

He wrote: “Lee Kuan Yew was a great man. And he was a close personal friend, a fact that I consider one of the great blessings of my life. A world needing to distil order from incipient chaos will miss his leadership.”




A selection of what world leaders had to say about Mr Lee’s contributions.

US President Barack Obama (above)

“(Mr) Leeʼs views and insights on Asian dynamics and economic management were respected by many around the world, and no small number of this and past generations of world leaders have sought his advice on governance and development.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo

“The former Prime Minister was a close friend of Indonesia and renowned as the founding father of modern Singapore. As a great leader and a statesman who truly loved his people, he was also known as an infl uential political fi gure in Asia.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi

“A far-sighted statesman and a lion among leaders, Mr Lee Kuan Yewʼs life teaches valuable lessons to everyone.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping (below)

“Mr Lee Kuan Yew is an old friend of the Chinese people, and a founder, pioneer and impeller of China-Singapore relations. (Mr Lee), together with the older generations of the Chinese leadership… made great contributions to the enhancement of friendship between the two peoples and the expansion of bilateral cooperation.”



Steven Limbara

“Mr Lee, you are such a great leader and role model for Singaporeans. Your dedication and spirit will stay forever in the hearts of Singaporeans.”

Ronnie Fok

“Mr Lee, I have never lived in the red dot, but I have admired your country from afar for many years. Singaporeans are lucky to have your guidance and leadership over the years as you brought the country from third world to first.”

Minn Naing Oo

“My parents came to Singapore from Burma in search of a better life and opportunities for their children… Growing up, I was the only Burmese in my class, in my school… Yet, I was never made to feel different, or that I did not have the same chance to succeed as the next person. This was due to you and your team… (and) part of what makes Singapore special – the values of inclusiveness and non-discrimination, and meritocracy.”

Shweta Parida-Dcosta

“You made Singapore a better place not just for Singaporeans but many others who came from elsewhere in the world and found a home for themselves in this country thatʼs small in size but phenomenal in its impact on the world. For that Mr Lee, many are indebted to you.”

Vivek M Dixit

“Having lived in Singapore for 15 years, fi rst as an expat, then a permanent resident and fi nally as a citizen of this nation, I have been in awe of the achievements of this country, led and founded by Mr Lee Kuan Yew. (The) memorial week, in honour of the great man, has reminded all of us of his sacrifi ces, his vision, the respect he commands in the international arena and reinforces, for me, the pride felt in this nation.”

Emile Guertin

“To Mr Lee Kuan Yew… I thank you for being such an inspiration over the years I have lived in Singapore. When I fi rst came to live here, and discovered your profound words and actions that wrote the course of history over fi ve decades, my subsequent years on this island would become a time to really sit up and continually contemplate lifeʼs important questions, and thanks to you, this period undoubtedly helped shape my world view.”


Sources: Singapore International Foundationʼs Facebook page ( singaporeinternationalfoundation) and the Ministry of Communications and Informationʼs Remembering Lee Kuan Yew website (www.


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